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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue C ::: March 2005

A Slow Conversion to Reading Groups

by Susan Watson
My first day at the Powell County Adult Education Program (PCAEP) began with an introduction to our one-room classroom/computer lab and the teaching resources that were available. I asked, “Where are the books?” The program had very few reading books, and those we had were mostly for beginners. So, I began my adult basic education (ABE) career in 1998 in rural Eastern Kentucky with few reading books to offer to students. I used some instructional money to purchase books, getting them from our textbook companies and a local, nationally known bookstore. The more books I gathered, the more frustrated I became. Students were checking them out and returning them unread. They were scoring below 500 in the reading subtest of the tests of General Educational Development (GED). The individualized approach we used, in which students worked on their own with intermittent help from an instructor, was not resulting in student achievement. That mode of delivery would certainly not work when we implemented state mandates to increase enrollment. Change was needed.

I took a graduate class to learn more about teaching reading. That class focused on k-12 reading instruction and encouraged the use of reading groups. One day in October, 2001, a new student walked through the door. She seemed ready to learn. Her Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) scores indicated that she needed reading instruction to meet her goal, which was to earn a GED. I thought about engaging her in some form of reading group, and decided that if I could not find other students willing to join a group, she and I would be the group. And so we were. She read every day for two weeks, and at the end of that period we discussed the book she had read. We did this for three weeks, reading and discussing eight books. After 40 hours of this, I retested her with a TABE: her reading le vel had increased four levels. This may not have been a valid test for gains, but it certainly had a tremendous psychological impact on her. She became very excited and wanted to read more and more. During her stay at the PCAEP she read an amazing total of 36 books! She was enrolled for three months, attending an average of three days a week for at least four hours a day. The reading level of the books she read went from easy to higher: from the Jesse Stuart readers Old Ben and A Penny’s Worth of Character to The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, and more.

No Interest

After this success, I desperately wanted to initiate reading groups, but it proved to be very difficult. Four or five students agreed to join, but only one showed up. I thought that the first student’s results would help the other students get excited about reading. This was not the case. I had to let go of the idea for awhile.

I again enrolled in a graduate class. The Kentucky Adult Educators Literacy Institute is a year-long, primarily online graduate-level course offered through three Kentucky universities and supported by the state adult education office. This class also covered reading groups, but this time for ABE students. I tried again, for a class project, to start reading groups in our program, but found that I was facing the same barriers as before: no students wanted to become involved, stating that they did not have time for it.

The graduate course was ending and I needed to do a group activity with students to complete an assignment. I gathered four students and begged them to participate. They agreed, telling me they would help me because I had helped them. We began the book group using Women in the Material World, by Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel, which profiles women from many different cultures around the world. We compared and contrasted two women, one from the United States and the other from India. Other students listened in, crowded as we are in our single room, watching their fellow students’ engagement in learning. They asked to be included in the next reading group.

Pivotal Moment

This was the pivotal moment. It was 2002, and this represented my first success in using group instruction with students. Most students later admitted that they were reluctant to be involved in a group (class) not because of time constraints, but because they were afraid of being called on and feared they would not be able to answer a question. I began the new group with a book talk, during which I read the title of the book, displayed the book jacket, read the back of the jacket, and talked about the author. We discussed what we thought the book would be about and talked about what we would do during the reading group. I reassured them that I would not call on anyone unless they volunteered.

Since then, the students have been excited about coming to class and seldom miss a session. When group members are unable to attend, they either call or ask other students to let them know what the group did that day, so that they can do the reading or assignments at home. The reading group has grown from the one student with whom I started in 2001 to 14 who participate at least three times a week. We have discovered so m uch about reading. The students now understand how to preview a book, summarize what they have read, and write a reaction to what they have read or discussed. The books we choose are stories of trials and triumph. We have read Life is So Good by George Dawson with Richard Glaubman, Ellen Foster Story by Kate Gibbons, and The Day No Pigs Would Die by Richard Peck, which was a favorite of the students. Their most favorite books were A Child Called It, The Lost Child, and A Man Named Dave, all by Dave Pelzer.

Impact on Academic Progress

The results from my most recent group of students demonstrate the effect on academics of the substantial amounts of reading the students do as part of the reading group. I retested the students to check on the gains they were making. We had been meeting as a reading group for about six weeks. Some students had made four- and five-level gains in reading. Our students who are not involved in the reading groups do not usually demonstrate this kind of level gain in reading in such a short period of time. Something else was happening: their math scores were rising as well. The ability to read for information and to look critically at the reading was likely providing them with the tools needed to solve math reading problems, which is an area that almost all students had reported as being difficult. Students’ GED test scores rose. Students who had taken the test and needed an increase in points in order to pass took the reading test again and made substantial gains in that area. In one student’s case, the scores rose from 470 to 620 on the actual GED. Another student’s GED score improved from 420 to 480.

One of the most exciting things that I witnessed since beginning reading groups happened when I was out of the room: a small group of the students went over to the bookshelf and discussed what book they would choose to read next. They talked about why they thought one book was going to be better than the other. They eventually decided that some of them would read one title and the others another title, and then discuss the books with each other and decide who had actually chosen the best book. Students are now checking out books on a daily basis, and sharing what they read by doing book talks. Students who have never read books before are reading.

Practical Tips

I would advise teachers who are starting reading groups to provide more books than they think they will need. Often I thought I would only need a certain number of books, but did not have enough for all the students who wanted them. Gather books that have interesting content and are easy to read and discuss. Ask a librarian to recommend titles. We are in a rural community with a great history and many local writers, so I started the group with books by local authors because I thought my student would connect well with these authors’ experiences. We moved on to books that provided a contrast to our community. I began our book collection by buying a small number of books with program instructional money. I also ask students to check out titles from the public library. I now run classroom sales so that the students can buy books inexpensively and I can earn points from the book company to purchase more classroom book sets.

Other Skills Also Improve

Group instruction has imparted to our learners skills they might not have gained working on their own from textbooks in the individualized instruction model. They seem to be more receptive to peers as well as more able to share and interact with them. Students sit with each other and talk about what we are going to do that day. They usually ask each other how far each has read into the book. Of course the greatest impact has been made on the increase in their skills and corresponding rise in test scores. We now offer group instruction in math, as well as our reading groups. I am very eager to continue to move our entire student learning into groups.

Ingredients for Successful Reading Groups

Harvey Daniels (2002, p. 18) lists 11 key ingredients of successful reading groups:

  • Students choose their own reading materials.
  • Small temporary groups are formed.
  • Different groups read different books.
  • Groups meet on a regular schedule.
  • Particpants use notes to guide their reading and discussion.
  • Discussion topics come from the participants.
  • Groups aim for natural conversations about books, so personal connections and open-ended questions are welcome.
  • The teacher is a facilitator.
  • Evaluation is by teacher observation and learner self-evaluation.
  • A spirit of fun pervades the room.
  • Readers share with their classmates when books are finished.

Daniels, H. (2002). Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Reading Group Resources
Draves, W. (1984). How to Teach Adults. Manhattan, KS: Learning Resources Network.

McMahon, S., & Raphael, T. (1997). The Book Club Connection. New York: Teachers College Press.

Rhodes, L.K., & Dudley-Marling, C. (1996). Readers and Writers with a Difference: A Holistic Approach to Teaching Struggling Readers and Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Richek, M.A., Caldwell, J., Jennings, J., & Lerner, J. (2002). Reading Problems, Assessment, and Teaching Strategies. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

About the Author
Susan Watson is the Instructor/Program Coordinator for the Powell County Adult Education Program in Stanton, KY. Susan earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Eastern Kentucky University and also holds certifications as a reading specialist and teacher of gifted and talented.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL